OBITUARY: Dick Macmillan, photojournalist who narrowly escaped Claudy attack

A cartoon drawn by Rowel Friers for Dick Macmillan's retirement from the BBC in 1982. It also features Brian Willis, his sound recordist.
A cartoon drawn by Rowel Friers for Dick Macmillan's retirement from the BBC in 1982. It also features Brian Willis, his sound recordist.

Dick Macmillan captured the tragedy and drama of Northern Irish news for decades, first on his still camera and then on moving film.

He was both the son of a journalist and father to one, and began his photographic career at the News Letter in the wake of World War Two.

Dick Macmillan at work during his time with the BBC

Dick Macmillan at work during his time with the BBC

Born on April 29, 1923, in east London to Sam and Gladys (nee Lydiard), he lived in the Purley district in the south of the city.

He was actually christened Geoffrey Harold, but became known as Dick because of an early fascination with birds (the name stemming from the phrase ‘dickie bird’).

His father was a reporter for the Daily Telegraph, and was of Ulster extraction (although he was an Australian citizen, and had fought at Gallipoli during World War One).

In the late 1920s, Sam opted to move to Northern Ireland, where he went on to work for the News Letter.

Aged 16, Dick volunteered to join the RAF at the outbreak of World War Two, lying about his age to get in.

He became an engineer, repairing cockpit instruments – particularly gimbals.

They are devices which keep cameras steady, so that if an aircraft is traversing enemy territory it will be able to take steady images.

Dick moved around the UK during his service, being stationed variously in Kent, Wales, and the Shetland Islands.

He injured his back when he fell out of a Wellington bomber which he had been repairing.

It was while he was recovering in a military hospital in Limavady that he met his future wife Dorothy, who was a sister with the Queen Alexandra Nursing Corps.

Soon after, she was posted to Singapore, Burma and India, and the couple were apart for two years, keeping in touch by letter.

After the war, Dorothy returned to her home village of Clones in Co Monaghan, and the two of them wed at the parish church there in 1948.

At around the same time, Dick got a job alongside his father in the News Letter, working as a photographer, and he moved to north Belfast.

His son Michael – a seasoned journalist who formerly broadcast for the BBC and ITV – said: “He had been involved in photography in the RAF; he spend the war working on cameras in one form or another, and he was a keen photographer.”

Among the major incidents he photographed was the launch of the Donaghadee lifeboat during the rescue operation to save the lives of passengers from the Princess Victoria ferry in 1953 – a sinking which cost 133 lives.

He covered the crash of the Vickers Viking aircraft at Nutts Corner in Co Antrim the same year, when 27 people were killed.

He was on the scene after a large stash of arms was stolen from Gough Barracks in Co Armagh the following year as part of the IRA border campaign.

Not long afterwards he moved to the BBC and became a cameraman, filming events from the outset of the Troubles until the 1980s.

However, one event he did not film was the infamous republican bomb attack on the Co Londonderry village of Claudy on July 31, 1972.

His son Michael told his funeral: “It was with his constant work companion, sound recordist, Brian Willis, that my dad came upon the Claudy bomb by accident.

“They had been driving to Derry and saw the plume of smoke. We had relatives there so my dad was worried.

“They changed course for Claudy. They parked the car seeing the mayhem unfold before them.

“My dad wasn’t happy about where they’d parked so they moved it.

“Then came the second explosion in a car parked right beside where they had moved from.”

Among the scenes he witnessed was Billy Eakin, a relative of his, carrying the body of his daughter Kathryn.

Michael said: “Dad and Brian didn’t do any filming that day. They just comforted the dying and helped the injured.”

His son added that as they years went on, young arrivals at the BBC’s Northern Ireland studios – including Jeremy Paxman and Nicholas Witchell – “learned street wisdom and many other tricks of our trade from Dick Macmillan”.

He left the BBC in 1982, but then went on to work as a cameraman for another few years for UTV.

In retirement he enjoyed caravan trips around France and Spain, and documenting his granddaughter Lucy’s life in pictures.

He had been living in Templepatrick for around the last 30 years of his life.

His wife predeceased him by around five years.

He remained active, owning a scooter and taking an interest in new technology like iPads, and until around three months ago he had been in good health.

He died of heart failure on October 7 in Antrim Hospital. He was 92.

His funeral was on October 10 at Roselawn, Belfast. He was cremated and his ashes – along with those of Dorothy – are to be buried in Clones in the next month or so.

He is survived by his son Michael and daughter Lucy, his younger brother Tony having died about a year earlier.